When I'm not traveling in Ireland I attend many Irish events in the US – Irish festivals and fairs, Irish dance competitions, and the occasional ceili (kay-lee; evening of music and dancing).
Some of these events will feature ‘top travel agents' or ‘Ireland travel experts' to answer questions about trips to Ireland. And while many ‘top agents' can offer great tips on booking travel- I often find myself disagreeing with their recommendations on how to get around and what to experience when you arrive on the Emerald Isle.
When we travel I want to be immersed in Ireland. I want to meet the people, have a pint, learn the dance steps (with my two left feet), and hear their stories.
So when travel agents suggest a large tour operator as the best way to travel, I disagree. It's not that I have anything against tours; some are really great. Like my own Celtic Experience small-group tour. Or local guide walking tours through a city or area. Or even a day tour if you don't want to drive yourself along cliff-top roads overlooking the ocean.
But for exploring all Ireland has to offer I recommend renting a car (or hiring a private driver guide) – especially if you are traveling with children.
It's not that difficult to drive on the “wrong” side of the road and when you have your own vehicle you are free to go at your own pace. Follow that intriguing, hand painted sign for hot tea and fresh scones; search for the castle you *think* you see in the distance; pull to the side of the road and talk to the man strolling with his dog. You can't do any of that on a big bus tour.
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Another suggestion I balk at, at least for Ireland, is to spend your entire vacation in hotels. I, personally, recommend mixing up your lodgings– maybe a B&B for a couple nights, followed by a boutique hostel to save a bit of money, then a splurge on a castle hotel. Each accommodation is a different experience, a unique ‘flavor' of Ireland.
While you don't want to miss the sights of your destination what you will really remember from your trip are the experiences, the chance encounters, and the mishaps along the way.
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10) Drive yourself. This is truly the best way explore Ireland. You set the pace, stop and go as you please. Getting lost is half the fun. Truly. The only time we avoid driving is when we are in a large city with great public transportation.
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Don't want to drive yourself but want the flexibility of a self-drive vacation?
Consider a private chauffeur tour!
9) Get off the motorway! Charles Kuralt famously said, “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything.” That is no less true in Ireland. Just remember- off the motorway the roads are narrow and winding in Ireland so plan extra time to reach your destination!
8 ) Sit at the bar! It's a fact- locals choose to sit at the bar for a chat; tourists sit at tables. We've taken our girls into many a pub- both in Ireland and the US. While we don't sit at the bar when they are with us, we do sit as close to it as possible. In most pubs you will order your drinks and food at the bar. Say hello and start a conversation. You never know who you may meet and what you may learn!
7) Ask questions! It doesn't matter if you are asking for directions or recommendations, people love to talk about where they live. This is the best way to find out where to get the best food, where to hear the best music, or if there are any “hidden gems” most tourists miss. Just don't be in a rush- good questions lead to great stories!
6) Visit the sites. That's what you went to see, after all. But be sure to talk to the staff and guides- and not just about the attraction. Ask about their favorite feature, inquire about legends, engage them in conversation. You'll get more than the “regular” tour. They may even be able to point you to lesser known, and often more interesting, locations.
5) Attend a local sporting event, festival, or market day. Be open, ask questions, listen and engage the people you meet. It's amazing what you will learn about customs, traditions, and even history of an area from casual conversations.
4) Kids everywhere like the same things. They also make friends easily. Let them take the lead. Visit a park or playground. You may get insider tips on a children's theater that hosts free plays or a fair coming up for the weekend.
3) Be flexible. You never know what opportunities will present themselves as you travel. Don't follow such a rigid schedule that you have to decline an invitation or bypass an incredible spot to stay ‘on time'.
2) Relax. Dance in a pub, join a ceili, sing with the band. My daughters do this all the time and have the most fun. Let go a little; you're on vacation.
1) Slow down! You'll never “see it all” so take the time to really savor what you do see and enjoy the moments. Don't come home from your vacation feeling like you need a vacation.
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